BALTIMORE — Three hours before the game Sunday, Manny Acta sat in the visiting manager’s office at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and talked about a subject he probably could write a master’s thesis on: rebuilding a baseball team. In his five seasons as a big-league skipper, after all - first with the Washington Nationals, now with Cleveland - Acta has never not been in rebuilding mode, though his circumstances now are much improved.
In fact, his Indians (49-44), after splitting a four-game set with the Orioles, are leading the American League Central - a year or two ahead of schedule, really. For the record, when Acta was in Washington, trying to help the Nationals gain traction, he spent exactly five days in first place - the first five of the 2008 season. Then reality intervened, as it always has with the Nats. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but not a whole lot longer than that. Not with Tim Redding as the ace of your pitching staff.
But back to the R-word: rebuilding. “It’s not pretty,” Acta said. “Look at Tampa. It took them 10 years to put together all those guys. Ten years of losing. Lou Piniella, one of the best managers of our generation, went in and couldn’t do anything. He aged like five years in the [three years] he was there. It was his hometown, his dream job, and he couldn’t take it. He was just beaten down. Then he goes to the Cubs and takes them to the playoffs the first two years. Rebuilding takes patience. But that’s the toughest thing.”
In this world of tweeting and movies on demand, who has time to wait a decade for a baseball team to be good? The Rays went through three managers - Larry Rothschild, Hal McRae and Piniella - before Joe Maddon led them out of the wilderness. The Nationals, meanwhile, are on their fifth skipper in seven seasons, counting John McLaren’s three-game interim stint last month, and it remains to be seen whether the latest, 68-year-old Davey Johnson, is any less interim than his predecessor was.
Which raises the question: Were the Nats a bit hasty in firing Acta, given what’s happening in Cleveland? Clearly, the man can manage. Of course, that was just as clear in Washington, where he posted a 73-89 record in his first season with a roster consisting mostly of scrap metal. (Translation: He didn’t have one starting pitcher who won more than seven games.)
Sometimes, though, a club simply has to change the furniture - for appearance’s sake, if nothing else. And there are few better times for remodeling than when you’re 26-61 at the All-Star break, as the Nationals were in the middle of Acta’s third year.
“That’s rebuilding for you,” he said. “You know you’re going to get your butt whipped. Everybody at the beginning understands that it’s going to take a few years of losing. But in sports, it’s tough to ask people to be patient for four, five years - to lose and lose and lose and not point a finger or not complain, because that’s human nature.”
How well he remembers that first training camp in Viera, Fla. Actually, “training camp” is kind of an overstatement. Then-general manager Jim Bowden shuttled some 80 bodies in and out. It felt more like a tryout camp. One player who got lost in the shuffle was a 27-year-old right-hander named Colby Lewis, last seen going 3-0 for the Texas Rangers in last year’s playoffs.
“It was like a survival show,” Acta said. “Lewis had had a good season in Triple-A for Toledo, so we brought him in. Then he got [shelled once] and was gone. With so many guys in camp, Jim had to make quick decisions.”
Another pitcher, Jason Simontacchi, had been toiling for the Bridgeport (Conn.) Bluejays in an independent league. Unlike Lewis, he managed to worm his way onto the roster and even started 13 games, going 6-7 with a 6.37 ERA. This is where the franchise was four years ago - when Acta was hired to make chicken salad out of a team that recently had shed the contracts of Alfonso Soriano, Livan Herandez, Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen.
Such managing jobs don’t offer much longevity. Generally, you get out of them what you can - with your sanity and reputation intact - and make way for the next victim (in this case, Jim Riggleman, who bailed on the Nationals in June, when he decided he didn’t fit into the club’s plans).
But Acta knew what he was getting into. He knew that managers in these situations lasted, on average, two to three years. He knew that if the Nats continued to struggle, he eventually would become the focal point.
He also knew that when an organization is short on talent, it tends to rush players rather than letting them develop at their own pace. That’s how a 22-year-old like John Lannan starts the 2007 season in A ball and ends up pitching by July in the majors. It’s also how Joel Hanrahan winds up being traded to Pittsburgh, where he’s now an All-Star reliever. The front office just didn’t feel like it could wait for him any longer.
“You’re paying your dues,” Acta said. “It’s a hard business. And whenever I had any doubts, all I had to do was look at Joe Torre before he went to the Yankees. Or [Terry] Francona before he went to the Red Sox. Or Bobby Cox before he went to the Braves. It wasn’t all rosy. The majority of the time, a manager is just as good as his roster. Simple as that.”
With the Indians, Acta has a little more to work with.
He has a fabulous shortstop (Asdrubal Cabrera) and a good-looking catcher (Carlos Santana) and left fielder (Michael Brantley) - none of them older than 25. He has some players in the pipeline (third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, second baseman Jason Kipnis and pitcher Drew Pomeranz) who he’s also excited about. And virtually every member of his pitching staff (Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin, closer Chris Perez, et al.) is in his mid- to late 20s.
“We were projected to contend next year,” Acta said, “but we’re in it this year. We’ll probably add a guy or two in the offseason, and then I seriously think we can become a force within two years. And I mean a force. “
By then, for the first time in his managing career, he might not be rebuilding anymore. The pieces might finally be in place. They’ll just be in place in Cleveland, instead of Washington.